Damn Vices

The advancement of technology, like a powerful wave in the ocean, has been unstoppable. Exponentially accelerating year on year, week on week.

Steve Jobs’ role in this epic production sticks with me. Those black, turtle-necked onstage monologues of his, the famous “Here’s to the Crazy Ones” ad in 1997. Carefully choreographed to invite us all in – you don’t want to miss this, don’t want to be left behind.

Apple devices swooped into the marketplace like a swarm of locusts, and millions of consumers dutifully opened their windows and doors.

Over time, their loyal customers flocked to keep up with each new iPhone edition (while others, instead, chose to wake up each day to Android versions, their addictions claiming a higher moral foothold, on an already flawed landscape) as we were collectively being herded forward like lemmings at break neck speed.

I’ve already checked my phone three times since I began this pathetic bleating – sat, as I am, rather ironically next to a wall full of second-hand books, in a café that served me, almost, my first meal here in Saigon, over ten years ago.

If I’d captured that moment on my phone (I can’t recall, but in 2011 I was probably glued to my Blackberry, and the penchant for Instagram-ing photos of your meals wasn’t yet cresting) no doubt Google would have reminded me of the moment recently. As the corporation surely did, on cue, first thing this morning, as I turned off the phone alarm at 5am and automatically thumbed through a sequence of familiar apps, freshly pinned with their new red message counts.

This morning at dawn, it was the turn of ‘2015’ to beam at my half blinking eyes, as I acclimatised in the dark bedroom to my waking reality, with a brace of colourful photos from a mate’s wedding in Bangalore, followed by images from the couple of days work I did in Dhaka after that, six years ago “this week”.

High fives Google, you get me every time. Can you make me a cup of coffee and charge it into my veins whilst you’re at it?

Deflated at such over-reliance on this these types of rituals, I nonetheless flicked through the selected photos, curated just for me. The bright hue of those local market crowds in Dhaka, froze forever in time, somewhere in my iCloud, spellbound me for a split second, firing up the memory bank – the bustle of people, the cackle of tradesmen and women, and the stench of that particular drainage system, which I recall all too nauseously as being horrific.

St Patrick’s Day, last week, produced a throwback to my frenzied escape from Laos on the very same day last year, as I fanged it back over the Vietnamese border to avoid a fortnight in a government quarantine camp.

Who knows what gems from my archives will be brought to my attention tomorrow?

The lure of expectation (more so than the final execution of actually finding out) is, perhaps, the secret to understanding how our devices take control over us so easily. No doubt millions has been spent on algorithmic nuance, and we know all too well (because those responsible went on TV to admit it themselves) of the manipulating tendencies of the tech companies to feed our insecurities and addictive persuasions.

Yet, armed with this knowledge, we pander to it and carry on regardless.

Arguably, however, the plain reality is that these profit-making entities are simply all taking part in respective races to the top. They all need more consumers, buying more. The same goes in other sectors (which, you could say, play to our addictive personalities): media giants; pharmaceutical companies; the tobacco and alcohol industries, as well as others – without profit these industries would go under, and without strong profit margins, they’d not have the resources to invest in technology and innovation.

Should we applaud Jeff Bezos for donating a fraction of his company’s profits into environmental initiatives? No one truly cares, but, for the sake of making a point, I think Bezos is prime case study territory for this conversation.

On the one hand, choosing to invest his $2billion in June 2020 cannot be sniffed at, no matter how slim a percentage some might feel this represents. Knowing how much global publicity this would create for his company, many argued that it was a ‘PR stunt’ (which of course these things always are).

Warren Buffet famously donated all of his wealth into the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation back in 2006. Maybe Bezos should have done the same? That said, what if all of the world’s CEO’s donated the same percentage as Bezos did last year – surely this would drum up some decent money and set a precedent and benchmark for the future?

Bezos has catapulted to the top at such a fast pace that he’ll never be able to win over all hearts and minds. Depending on how your newsfeed is manipulated, you’ll either hate him for underpaying his workers, or revere him for his innovation.

It is, like so much now in so many people’s 2021 lifestyles, all about the brand.

Ask yourself why you choose a certain brand of toothpaste and, part of the answer might hark back to an earlier time in your life when toothpaste adverts were competing for the #1 spot for that particular commercially exploitative past-time.

There was a time when Colgate outsold Coca-Cola annually based on the number of items shifted. And, yet, Forbes’ latest list of most valuable brands pegs them at #72, with Apple, Google Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook taking the top 5 spots.

None of this so far is new intel, or indeed news-worthy at all: me, a middle-aged man stuck for a year in a foreign country, wholly reliant on technology and his phone to survive, bitching about technology and his phone (kind of) and highlighting the unstoppable forces of capitalism, fake news and digital products…the very same middle-aged man who sent his god-daughter a belated birthday Amazon voucher last week…which took about 3 minutes to do, on my phone, whilst I was in the queue at our local Viettel shop paying our monthly internet bill.

If it wasn’t so darn hot and humid in Saigon at the moment, I’d get my coat.


So, what does make news these days anyway and who is in control of it?

As history books will record 2020 as the year of COVID-19 (as well as a rather fabulous wedding!) will they also reflect on just how life changing our technologies have proved themselves to be, during these protracted months of pandemic lockdown?

Without video conferencing, without online shopping, online schooling, online voting, and so on – without the myriad of possibilities that technologies have opened up for us, perhaps the current “war-time” footing we are experiencing would have been even more isolating and acutely uncomfortable for many millions of people.

COVID has cost and destroyed many lives but, for those not working in healthcare, the pandemic can also be credited with reframing for some the once predictable, normative aspects of how society and our economies function. Millions have used this reframe to re-boot their sense of who they are, and where they are going.

Some have become immersed in new pursuits, or more simply just abandoned their phones and social media completely (or at least beveled down the edges of their screen time and online binges) – rewarded and nourished, instead, from the very absence of technologies in their lives.

However we look back on the past 12 months, the resiliency of human nature, matched with the entrepreneurial DNA of the private sector has, pixel by pixel, started to “etch-a-sketch” out the intricacies and familiarities of life as we knew it before – socialising, schooling, travelling, learning, loving, playing – a long list, in a short time.

Going back to the topic of our phones, and like all vices, it seems our relationships with them are very much a personal thing. Steve Jobs may well have been pleased with the results so far: most of us are hooked to them 24/7.

As addicts, we don’t like to be judged on usage, we don’t take well to being told that our phones are distracting us from other things, and we fall into the trap of hastily judging others for their dependencies, whilst failing to recognise our own.

I’m noticing, too, how when out with others, someone (me included) might take their phone and look up the name of something or someone that is being discussed and, in so doing, mentally claim “helpful” rights within the group, for that half minute – at the same time, of course, momentarily enjoying the thrill of reviewing the five whatsapp messages which had teasingly pinged their arrival, whilst said person was pretending to listen to their mate’s story about the latest episode of Line of Duty.

Even how one uses their phone in these social scenarios is part of modern day etiquette. I went out without my phone recently and was rebuked for doing so, however my evening was instantly improved by not having it with me.

When we are out, are our phones in our pockets, or on the table, at the ready? Face up, or face down? Face down means we’re really concentrating on what another person is saying, right?


A group thing I heard about a few year’s back in the US, was to lock your phones in a box when out for dinner and then, should anyone feel so distraught that they had to check their phone during the meal, they also picked up the bill. Not a bad idea.

In any case, our phones have become higher currency to us than perhaps was ever envisioned, even by Jobs himself.

As the ego naturally leads so many of our decisions – and is largely responsible for our daydreaming about who we will be, what we will achieve and how we will carve out a legacy on this planet – technology has leveraged our egos tremendously well.

Although I’ve not been on Facebook now for almost a decade, is was their trail blazing of the ‘like’ button that instigated a flood of subsequent sneaky digital marketing tactics, with their suggestive ways of keeping us on the hook.

“Clickbait” and “kudos”, “reviews” and “comments” sections, “shares” and “hashtags”. And on, and on. These days, you can’t hum a tune in the shower without it being leaked to Amazon or iTunes and, through some glitch in the matrix (or simply through the microphones in our phones and our laptops) an advert for the same band’s new album lands in your lap the next morning.

And so, once more, and for the last time in this post, hats off to you Google, and well done Facebook wizards, you deserve the kudos (and the bonuses your bosses reward you) for product development, for your digital savvy and, yes, for your manipulative ways.

You have delivered so much, so quickly. And you have created so much dependency.

Just as I chastise you, I do respect your efforts, because I respect the contributions being made, fingers crossed, towards what will become a more conscientious technological movement in the future.

Striving for perfection and new norms

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In a recent podcast featuring the journalist Will Storr, two powerful statistics were shared: 1.) in 2014, on average, 93 billion selfies were being taken on a daily basis on smart phones, and 2.) one third of all the photos taken by 18-25 year olds were photos of themselves.

Storr’s interview surfaced his strong beliefs around how neo-liberalism (“new freedom”) took hold in the early 1980s, and he quotes Margaret Thatcher as being a key – and “sinister” – architect of the movement.

Thatcher believed that a societal reframing (in the global “West” at least) around individualistic values, would pivot away from the uprising of collective movements, experienced during the 60s and 70s, and their outpourings against established government and private sector structures.

As Thatcher famously said: “Economics are the method; the object is to change the soul.”

The premise for his first book, Selfie, lays out Storr’s own perspectives on the toxicity of what then unfolded, from around 1983 onwards, up until the present time.

In particular: the rise of fitness videos; self-improvement manuals; and, in short, the slow march towards such colloquial mantras as “anything is possible” or that “all things are achievable, no matter who you are”.

Storr goes on to make strong links between individualism, social media and the current surges in the number of people self-harming, committing suicide or being affected by body dysmorphia.

For myself, living in Vietnam for the best part of 9 years now, it was interesting that Storr used as his comparison the constructs of East and West, historically representing juxtaposed cultures.

In the East, there are consistent examples of societal norms being inclined towards a collective. Whether that is through family circles, faith-based or local community structures, or through more institutional level socialist frameworks. However, I see this changing from my Asian vantage perspective, towards a more individualistic mentally superseding what has gone before.

Today, as I board yet another plane, it does often feel to me more and more that, cultural norms aside, we are all gradually morphing into one chaotic, opinionated cacophony of online noise and garbage – digital pleasure-seekers more inclined to pursue our own, rather than a shared, agenda.

As Storr points out, that we can connect with the world’s most successful people, via social media platforms, only serves to artificially heighten the potential for us to want to be that successful ourselves.

We might rationally rebut that urge, however the brain is hard-wired to make sense of the world and create the right conditions for each of us to feel justified in our actions and our personas – however we live our lives.

I step onto airplanes, for example, deftly soporific and eased into sleep as my plane makes for the runway, because I’ve chosen to believe that the carbon emissions I’m contributing to are made acceptable because I’ve recently made an effort to eat less red meat, and because I don’t own a car.

Sounds trite. And, as an argument, is bonkers. But I think it nonetheless, and I’ve no doubt other people make their own moralistic arguments to themselves, in order to dilute the guilt often felt when indulging in things we know to be morally ambivalent.

If that is the case – that each of us is susceptible to making choices and taking positions that favour our desire driven choices – then it is equally feasible that each of us is susceptible, however slight or unconscious, to wanting to achieve a form of individual perfection.

Just as connectivity offers up so many tantalizing and nourishing opportunities, so too is it driving these trends and habits rapidly forward.

If you were born in the 1990s, then your exposure to smart phones and the internet is almost as normal as walking and talking. My own children are still mostly at arm’s length to social media (aged 8 and 11) however it’s lurking around every corner of their lives.

Storr is disdainful about what is lurking around corners. Idealistic, sugar-coated calls to action, for example, that pop up in advertising or on social media platforms: “follow your dreams” they clamor, “you can be anything you want to be”.

If Will Storr had his way, all of these feel good quotes would be removed from our lexicon, given “they’re simply not true”.

In which case, what should replace these sentiments? Less incentives to dream big, and more reality checks? Is that what young people should busy themselves with instead of worrying about which filter to use on their next Instagram picture?

On the one hand, yes, 100%. We’ve lurched too hard and too quickly into the narcissistic arena that Storr is describing. But what is the compromise between utterly dismantling this digital architecture and these false-hope aspirations?

I don’t have definitive answers to this, other than to suggest limitations on what currently exists. Holding people – young people especially – back from experiencing and accessing social media would only serve to heighten their thirst for it.

Curbing screen-time for children, and at times removing the lure of it completely by breaking up routines is, perhaps, a start.

But then I also feel hopeful that the anti-social media movement is already underway.

Just as many societies are seeing drops in the uptake of drug usage and alcohol consumption across younger generations so are there spaces appearing for the fierce opposition to the growing network of tech companies who control these platforms and, by association, have crept into our lives.

There will, inevitably, be a toppling of those who currently monopolise these systems.

What remains in question is what will replace them.


Blue pill, red pill

So, engaging graphics and playing-to-the-crowd sentiments aside, the video above is well worth a gander.

The main thrust of its narrative is a warning to all that we risk creating an increasingly lonelier state of self through the persistent use of social media, ironically pitched as social media can be as a way of improving an individual’s ‘connectivity’ in the world.

In the olden days we used to wake up, make tea, brush our teeth and collect our frozen milk bottle off the doorstep. Today, we’re more likely to check our email, Twitter and Facebook accounts before we even dip a toe out of bed, let alone respond diligently to any line of enquiry emanating from other human beings in our house. Continue reading “Blue pill, red pill”